UPDATE: Apparently response from developers has been so thunderous that Google is now offering to pay them to write programs. Yeah, that’ll work…
I’m playing catchup on this, but my take on Google’s new phone platform, Android, is a lot less breathless than what you might have read elsewhere last week. Promising to turn cell phones into pocket PCs, whatever that means, Android was front-page news here in Silicon Valley, and even in The New York Times, which also effused editorially. I consider Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer closer to the mark, though, in calling it a mere press release and “a bunch of words.” That’s what I love about Steve, he never speaks in code. Ballmer of course took the opportunity to boast about Windows Mobile’s staggering success on 150 different handsets from 100-plus operators. Silly me, I can’t name a single one.
But Ballmer knows mere press releases when he sees ’em, as any veteran of Microsoft FUD knows. My favorite example will always be the hugely trumpeted mid-1990s Microsoft At Work (MAW!) initiative to put Windows on all office machines — copiers, fax machines, printers. That one was front-page news, too. Unless I missed something, though, I never saw a “File/Edit/Format” etc. interface on a fax machine.
The fact is, these industry-wide initiatives get lots of feel-good ink and very little traction. Standards, as a friend likes to joke, are useful mainly for giving everyone something to unite against. If they were really crucial, digital camera makers would have figured out the best interface for setting and unsetting automatic flash, for example. Remote controls would all have the “Enter” button in the same place. And cell phone makers might even agree on where to put the SEND button.
As it stands, phone makers have little incentive to adopt a Google platform because 1) it gives any of their really good ideas (albeit rare) to their competition, 2) they lose the ability to differentiate features (often tied to handset UIs) from competitors, and 3) the bulk of any monetization of the platform (in this case, advertising) is sure to go into the already deep pockets of Google.
The other reason this thing won’t go anywhere, though, is the curiously unchallenged role of Google CEO Eric Schmidt. It so happens that Schmidt sits on the board of Apple Inc. and is a BFF of Steve Jobs. So if Android is a mobile platform and the iPhone is a mobile platform, isn’t that what you call your classic conflict of interest? Apparently Schmidt is skating this with one of his engaging winks and some vague blather about the ecosystem of mobile technology nurturing many forms, but in reality what it says to me (absent a shareholder revolt) is that, yeah, the whole enchilada is meaningless. Apple can keep doing its closed iPhone thing (although my bet is that after its AT&T commitment runs out, we’ll see iPhones on other carriers as well) with no fear from Google’s putatively open-platform let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing “press release” … while Ballmer pouts about someone else getting lots of attention for a hollow gesture. Android is just a straw dog to freeze potential competition to the iPhone till Apple can license it to other vendors or build a monopoly so fast and strong it doesn’t matter what the phone makers do. Whether conflict of interest or backroom collusion, the whole thing deserves regulatory inspection.
Till then, the annoyingly named Android — and by the way, why didn’t anyone ask what the name means, other than the company that Google bought…and shouldn’t it have been called Handroid instead? — is something everyone can smile and nod about. Isn’t that nice, we’ll all be able to IM one another and post photos to Flickr when the next earthquake hits. Remind me to check back in a couple of years. About then, hopefully, Google will be announcing an open platform for digital camera software.